Seeking a fresh start after five years in office, President Obama hopes to use his biggest speech of 2014 to put the worst stretch of his presidency behind him.
The symbolism of the address is likely to overshadow its policy implications — a commander in chief looking to re-establish his authority and shake off notions that he’s already approaching lame-duck status.
Obama must answer five questions when he addresses both chambers of Congress in prime time on Tuesday:
1. Is he still relevant?
The president has framed 2014 as a “year of action,” vowing to unleash a wave of executive orders to jump-start the economy and advance an unabashedly progressive agenda. But to get the big-ticket items done, Obama must make headway on Capitol Hill and not just rely on his “pen.”
For the president, 2013 was defined by the botched Obamacare rollout, uproar over National Security Agency surveillance and other controversies that raised doubts about the competence of the executive branch.
With Obama near record-low approval ratings, Republicans openly question whether they have any incentive to listen to the president, and Democrats are fearful of any missteps in an election year.
White House officials acknowledge that Obama is already looking at the hourglass in his final term.
“The president is well aware he is ‘on the clock’ so to speak,” said one senior administration official. “That drives everything he’s doing — there’s a real sense of urgency here.”
2. Why is he putting so much emphasis on income inequality?
If you’re looking for buzzwords in Obama’s speech, look no further than “income inequality” and “economic mobility.”
The centerpiece of the president’s address this year is about closing what Obama sees as the harmful gap in pay between high- and low-income Americans.
But Obama must explain to people in real terms, not sound bites, why tackling income inequality is at the top of his to-do list amid so many pressing problems, analysts said.
Republicans say that focus takes attention away from the struggling economy, noting that 2013 ended with the weakest job growth in years.
3. Has he lost control of events in the Middle East?
"I have never seen anything like this in my life," Sen. John McCain R-Ariz., said recently about Obama's approach to the Middle East. "I thought Jimmy Carter was bad, but he pales in comparison to this president."
Obama must convince Democrats to hold off on new economic sanctions against Iran, which he says could scuttle a temporary deal with Tehran on its nuclear program.
Newly launched Syrian peace talks are also off to a rocky start and strongman Bashar Assad is slow-walking efforts to disarm his chemical arsenal. After bungling his call for U.S. military action against Assad, Obama badly needs a diplomatic solution to emerge.
The president will argue there are no easy answers in the Middle East, and that although his actions may appear scattered — even contradictory — he’s ultimately protecting U.S. interests in a volatile region. But spiraling violence in the region has also unsettled key American allies.
4. Is Obamacare back on track?
To hear Obama tell it, the darkest days for his signature domestic initiative are in the past.
Though healthcare.gov is functioning better, a series of self-imposed delays have brought more worries about the state of the Affordable Care Act.
Industry officials are openly concerned about demographics of the people enrolled in Obamacare so far. Of the 2.2 million people who have signed up for new health plans, the overwhelming majority are older, and insurers desperately need a big increase in younger, healthier people to balance their risk pools. In addition, most enrollees were already insured, and it is not clear how many people have paid their first month’s premium.
5. Can he work with Republicans to pass immigration reform?
Obama says failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform remains his biggest regret and dismisses charges that he has kept the issue on the table to score political points against Republicans.
Conservatives supporting immigration reform say the president’s sincerity will be put to the test in 2014.
Some House Republicans have embraced the concept of legal status for illegal immigrants but won’t endorse a special pathway to citizenship.
“He needs to sound like he’s willing to build a consensus with Republicans, recognize there’s movement in the House,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.